Who's Really The Boss? David Chase Calls the Shots
What began quietly in the mind of writer David Chase as a movie about "a mob boss in therapy whose mother was his enemy" became instead the most successful series in the history of American cable TV.
Seven seasons stretched over nearly a decade -- a run that ends tomorrow night at 9 when the final one-hour chapter airs -- and "The Sopranos" brought new viewers and new attention to Home Box Office, Time Warner's pioneer premium-cable network.
The intense, richly detailed and shockingly violent vision of one man, the show's continuing story of mob conflict in New Jersey achieved a status usually reserved for literary, cinematic or theatrical milestones -- a "Death of a Salesman," "Streetcar Named Desire" or "The Godfather."
"Sopranos" seems already to have secured the seminal status of cultural landmark. Its complex, darkly textured saga of a crime empire's decline and descent could be seen as an allegory about the fall of the West and the end of America's global supremacy in a new world of cultural, economic and political change. Or it could be seen as just a brilliantly riveting series about life among a dying gangster aristocracy whose chicanery and corruption were small potatoes compared with modern-day corporate crime, international terrorism and political scandals.
An HBO spokesman says research shows that the audience for "Sopranos" includes "the intelligentsia" at one extreme and action fans at the other.
Chase, whose previous writing for television included work on "The Rockford Files," directed only two episodes of "Sopranos" -- the first and the last -- but oversaw all of them, even picking most of the music used. (The opening theme, "Woke Up This Morning," is by a group known in England as Alabama 3 and in the United States as A3, according to the just-published "The Sopranos: The Book," yet another volume about the show.)
Each installment of the series has contained plot developments that the producers took pains to keep hidden, and those efforts have been quadrupled for the big finale. Secrets about what happens to mob boss Tony Soprano, wife Carmela and their children, Meadow and A.J. -- and innumerable other characters -- have been so closely kept that even HBO executives were forbidden from taking videotapes or DVDs of the final chapter home with them; they had to watch it in the office and then return the copy to the producers.
From a car zooming through the French countryside the other day, Chase spoke about the demise of a show that has been his life since its inception in the '90s. "It's all finished, yes," Chase said, "although last week I was having dinner with some French guys who asked, 'When are you done?' And I said, 'I have two more [edits].' Then I realized, no, I'd done them, I was finished, but I couldn't seem to stop.
"I'm not really there yet. It hasn't dawned on me that there's nothing to do."
Asked when he knew in his own mind what the multilayered story's finale ultimo would be, Chase said: "About three years ago. There were not many changes from what I originally envisioned. Creatively, the challenge about 'The Sopranos' was that from the beginning, my goal was always to do a little movie every week. Other people like HBO and [production company] Brillstein-Grey wanted to have continuing story elements. I wasn't interested in that, but then I got interested in that, and then that sort of took over; it was only about continuing story and I had to beat that back.
"So that is a long way of saying: It has all been planned out, we always knew exactly where it was going, but within that framework, we left a lot of room for each episode to have its own character and to invent stories that would fit in with the continuing story -- if that makes any sense."
Chase conceded that it hasn't been easy keeping the contents of the final show secret. In recent weeks, members of Tony Soprano's once-mighty empire have been blown away in the kind of shockingly graphic "whackings" that were one trademark of the show, leading fans to wonder whether Tony will go up in smoke himself.